“I only hope that we don’t lose sightof one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.” ~ Walt Disney, “What Is Disneyland” television program (27 October 1954) Experimenting with Sound and Colours The Golden Age of animation started with the first soundcartoons in 1928. At that time Walt Disney gained popularity with his series ofMickey Mouse cartoons.
Everythingbegan with a short animation called “PlaneCrazy”, which was a silent film, just like all previous Disney’s works. It was soon followed by”The Gallopin’ Gaucho”, but it was not as successful as itspredecessor. This is when the concept for sound animation started. Pat Powers,an Irish businessman, sold Disney a Cinephone system – a sound-on-film technology – which was the key to Disney’s first Mickey cartoon with a sound called “Steamboat Willie”. It guaranteed ahowling success and the company continued to use soundtracks in all future projects(Pallant, 2011). In 1929 Disney released a new seriesentitled Silly Symphonies. The firstanimation – “The Skeleton Dance” –was fully animated by Ub Iwerks. Even though both Mickey Mouse and SillySymphonies were successful, Walt Disney fell out with his distributor – PatPowers – over money.
Powers responded by proposing Disney’s head animator -Iwerks, a deal to create his own animation studio. As a result, Disney signed anew distribution contract with Columbia Pictures. Ub Iwerks launched his ownprojects, but eventually he shut his studio and returned to Disney in 1940. (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.48)In early 1930s Mickey Mouse became extremely popular worldwide and Disney signed a new contractwith Technicolour company to createthe first three-strip full-colouranimation called “Flowers and Trees”.
It was quite an experimental project – the animation was already in production,when Walt Disney decided to convert it to colour cartoon (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.50).This almost ruined him financially, but in the end the animation came outahead. “Flowers and Trees” was afirst cartoon to win an Oscar – it happened in 1932, during the 5thAcademy Awards (Glenday, 2014: p. 208).Silly Symphonies reached its peak of glory in 1933,when Disney created his most successful short – “The Three Little Pigs”. The story was both socially and culturallysignificant during The GreatDepression, cartoon’s main song “Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Wolf” became anational hit (Mollet, 2013: p.48).
In 1930s Disney revolutionised Mickey Mouse cartoons by changing character’s design. Modelsappeared more flexible and could perform more complicated movements (Solomon, 2007). In 1932, the showreceived a special Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject.
Disneystarted creating new characters such as Pluto (1930), Donald Duck (1934), Goofy(1932) – they soon got their individual cartoons. Donald’s temperament made himDisney’s second most popular cartoon character. He first appeared in “The Wise Little Hen” in 1934 (Mollet, 2013: p.52). Disney never stopped experimenting,in 1937 he invented a multiplane cameraand picked “The Old Mill” as itsso-called “guinea pig”. The animation showed what could be done with visualimagery without including a dialogue (Leeand Madej, 2012: p.61). The ideaturned out to be successful and was soon used in Disney’s first feature-lengthanimated film.
Snow White and theSeven Dwarfs – the true Golden Age begins Back in June 1934 Walt Disney announced the idea to make hisfirst feature length animation based on the “Snow White” (1854) fairy tale bythe Brothers Grimm. He believed that the plot has a decisive impact on ananimated film. The production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” wasbased on Disney’s previous techniques (NormanRockwell Museum, 2013).
He imagined his heroine as a very realistic andbelievable character – however, Disney’s workers had no experience in animatinghumans. This is when company decided to make its first realistic animation of human figure. In November 1934 createda short called “The Goddess of Spring”. The main character – Persephone, was akey-stepping stone in designing the figure of Snow White, but she was notrealistically alive. Disney hired a professional dancer to help animatorsunderstand the importance of realistic movements and face expressions (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.58).
Despite the financial questions, “Snow White and theSeven Dwarfs” finally premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in LosAngeles on December 21st, 1937. The standing ovation at the end ofpresentation proved that Snow Whiteachieved the long-awaited success. It is believed to be the most influentialanimation in the history (Meyer, 2016:p.14). It cost Disney over one million dollars and over 62 people wereinvolved in the production (John C. FlinnSr. 1937), but at the end the animation was a spectacular success.
It is oneof the top ten performers in the NorthAmerican box office (adjusted for inflation) (Meyer, 2016: p.14). 1940s: Financial Distress and WarPropaganda After the release of SnowWhite, the studio continued with producing even more complicatedanimations. Only 3 years later, they released Disney’s second animated featurefilm called “Pinocchio” (February7, 1940) – even though it cost twiceas much, it was not as successful as “SnowWhite and the Seven Dwarfs”. A few months later, on November 13, “Fantasia” saw the light of the day in itscomplete form.
During production, Disney came up with the Fantasound system – it was a new stereophonic sound reproduction technology,that was designed by Disney’s engineers to improve the dramatic presentation ofmotion picture and replace the sound-reproduction system (Garity, William E.; Jones, Watson, 1942). Even with such atechnological improvement, “Fantasia” receivedmixed reviews and was considered a financial failure. Due to money difficulties, Walt Disney had to tighten the purse strings.In 1941 a low-budget feature film, “Dumbo”, was released. Even thoughit was cheaper, the production process was rough – in May 1941, over 200 Disney employees went on strike (Gabler, 2006). However, “Dumbo” was the first successfulanimation since Snow White premiere.
In December 1941 the US entered WorldWar II, what immediately affected Disney. The only feature film that was stillin production was “Bambi” (Gabler, 2006). Because of the war, studio focused onmaking propaganda shorts – “Saludos Amigos” (1942), “The Three Caballeros” (1944), “Make Mine Music” (1946), “Fun and Fancy Free” (1947), “Melody Time” (1948) and “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad”(1949) – the collection of Disney’s six package films. However, his shortsweren’t as popular as the Mickey Mouse ones.In 1943 studio released “Victory Through Air Power” – a documentaryfeature film.Leaving in ablaze of gloryIn 1950 Disney released “Cinderella”– after a decade of struggling, Disney achieved a huge success and his newproduction gained popularity among the world. The story of Disney’s newprincess erased the financial distress by earning $7.
9 million (Gabler, 2006). Thereby, Walt Disneycould continue his previous projects.Studio released a series oflive-action naturedocumentaries, but “Alice in Wonderland” was Disney’s centreof attention. Animation had its premiere in New York City and London on July26, 1951. Disney’s goal was to create a story, where a real person interactswith cartoon world (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.26).
Even though it was not as financially successfulas “Cinderella”, the animation impressed audience favourably. Threeyears later, Disney came up with Alice’sfollower – “Peter Pan”. Walt believed it was much better than his previousanimation, what was proven by positive reviews and higher income (Gabler, 2006).”Lady and the Tramp” (1955) was a first animation in CinemaScope – a lens series used forwidescreen projections.
Because of animating in the widescreen process, thepremiere was delayed and the whole production took twice as much time asstandard animations (Gabler, 2006).At that time, The Golden Age ofDisney seemed to reach its peak. Before dyingof lung cancer in 1966 (Lee and Madej, 2012: p.174), Walt Disney finishedthe production of “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) and “101Dalmatians” (1961).First animation was made using the new SuperTechnirama system, then studio switched to Xerography technique.
The death of Walt Disney brought his company to so-called Disney Dark Age. Even with such a tragic ending, The Golden Era created Disney’s best-known productions and made a mark in the historyof animation development. It changed the way people see cartoon animation – notonly as entertaining show, but as piece of art educational for all of us. Weowe Disney’s love for experiments, the greatest development in motion picture industry– from basic sound cartoons to advanced full-feature animation masterpieces. Withtoday’s era of 3D modern animation, we should never forget that “it was all started by a mouse” (Walt Disney,1954).
SOURCES: Pallant, Chris, 2011, “DemystifyingDisney: a history of Disney feature animation” Continuum International PublishingGroup LtdLee, Newton; Madej, Krystyna, 2012, “Disney Stories: Getting to Digital”Springer New York DordrechtHeidelberg LondonGlenday, Craig, 2014, “Guinness World Records 2014” GuinnessWorld Records LimitedMollet, Tracey, 2013, “Historical’tooning: Disney, Warner Brothers, the Depression and War 1932-1945″The University of LeedsInstitute of Communications StudiesSolomon, Charles, 2007, “TheGolden Age of Mickey Mouse” The Walt Disney Family Museum – SpecialExhibit ArticlesNorman Rockwell Museum, 2013, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”Meyer, Andrew, 2016, “Animation or Cartoons: An American Dilemma”Seattle Pacific University John C. Flinn Sr., 1937, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” Reviewfor Variety MagazineGarity, William E.; Jones, Watson, 1942, “Experiences in Road-Showing Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Journal of the Society of Motion PictureEngineers.”Gabler, Neal, 2006, “WaltDisney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.”Disney, Walt, 27 October 1954, “What Is Disneyland” television program, WaltDisney Productions